Feeling the Growing Love for Felt
By Anna Soref, Editor in Chief
Felt—you might equate it with grade-school crafts, but DIYers are going nuts with this versatile medium made from wool, and increasingly artists are creating masterpieces with their own handmade felt.
What’s so cool about felt? For starters, it’s unique from other fabrics because it isn’t woven. Traditionally, felt is made by layering unspun wool (the stuff that sometimes looks like cotton candy), getting it wet with soapy water and then massaging, rolling or otherwise agitating it. “The water and agitation mat the fibers together and cause the fibers to interlock,” says Marie Spaulding, a visual artist and founder of Living Felt, a felting supply store and website. “Unlike hair, wool has these one-way scales that interlock and cause the fibers to bind together when agitated with water, warmth and soap,” Spaulding explains. Felt can also be made into three-dimensional shapes through a sculpting process with a special felting needle. Another big plus for felt is its versatility, which lends itself to multiple uses. “You can create something you put on your feet or your baby or something you hang on the wall,” says Spaulding. “You aren’t locked into any style; there aren’t constraints, just techniques, and then you can go wherever you want with it.”
Spaulding reports that felt has really taken off in the past ten years. “The craft revival, DIY television shows and the Internet have all really helped it explode,” she notes. “People are naturally brilliant, and they see these images of felt art on the Internet and are inspired to do great things.” She points out one artist, Tracey McCracken Palmer, who has fallen in love with felting. “She was a painter who recently started creating felt art and is coming out with some really stunning work—she has created more in the past year in felt than in her whole career.” While it may seem novel these days, felt is actually thought to be the oldest known textile, according to Spaulding. “It predates weaving and spinning; we keep finding older and older pieces. Right now it appears to go back to 6,000 BC.”
At Living Felt, the wool is sourced from small farms that treat the sheep ethically. “Most of the farms we deal with do it because they love the animals and are caretakers. They put their lives into and really love what they do. We get to know our farmers; it’s important for us to be connected,” Spaulding says. Living Felt pays extra to have several of their wool varieties, including the MC-1 and Core Wool, washed in a green soap that doesn’t contain harsh chemicals. They also don’t “carbonize,” or burn, their wool. “We don’t burn out vegetable matter, so it can have bits of hay in it. Dyes are the same as used in commercial fabric.”
Spaulding’s favorite thing about felting is that anyone can do it. “I love that you don’t have to be a gallery artist to be welcomed by the medium; there’s enough room for everyone, whether you’re a grandma, a painter, clothing designer or a fine artist. And then there’s the joy it gives—that’s perhaps the best thing about felting.”
Photo credits: Fotohogg Photography by Stacy Berg